Why do our super-patriotic favorite toon characters no longer help with our war efforts? Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman investigates how times have changed since WWII.
La guerre, cest jolie!" -Anonymous French soldier, WWI
The dashing poilu who made the above statement may not have lived to prove it; he most likely discovered that war was not a party somewhere on the bloody banks of the Marne. Even for the victors, war is rarely a joyous romp, nor does victory come without a dear cost. The exceptions, of course, were Americas animated combatants, who had a rip-roaring time thwarting the foe at no risk of death or disfigurement. Not only was war a right jolly time for them, victory was guaranteed. Yet, after the end of the Second World War, the toons laid down their arms. The surrender of Japan in 1945 marked the final time that cartoon characters sallied out to support the troops, despite the fact that the United States participated in several wars thereafter. This month's column examines why Hollywoods animated guns fell silent.
As I was working on the initial drafts for this column, the fortieth anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis was being observed. Wednesday, October 24, 1962, was an unseasonably cold and cloudy day that smelled of wet leaves and fear. I remember sitting in my first-grade class in the William Bradford School, Dorchester, Massachusetts. As twenty other young children and I watched, faces filled with dismay and shock, our teacher (I no longer recall her name) abruptly began to cry and could not stop. Adults rarely did this; teachers, never. We looked helplessly across our desks at each other, none of us knowing quite what to do. A couple of the girls began to cry as well. Another teacher named Mrs. Hill was passing by our classroom and noticed what was happening. Mrs. Hill walked up to our teachers desk, gently put her arm around the stricken woman, and whispered to her. Our teacher mumbled something, sobbed sharply, and shook her head. Mrs. Hill helped her to her feet and walked her from the room, talking to her in a low, soothing voice. Although no teacher was now in the room, no child uttered a sound; so it remained until Mrs. Hill came back a few minutes later. Your teacher isnt feeling well, we were told. You may take your pencils and crayons and draw quietly. Shortly after that, the assistant principal came in to cover the class. Our teacher, you see, had been listening to the radio before coming to school that day. If a certain ship crossed a certain line at a certain time, the world might end. Our teachers nerves gave out first.
That wasnt the way school or life was supposed to go. I went home badly shaken and did what I thought would help: turned on the TV and waited for the afternoon cartoons. I wanted my ink-and-paint heroes to face down the evil Reds; I had seen them in action against Hitler and Tojo and wished that my celluloid heroes could thrash the Bolsheviks as well. I wanted revenge for my teacher and for my fearful classmates, but most of all I wanted my beloved cartoons to give me some reassurance and make everything better. (If Bugs Bunny is with us, who can stand against us?) However, there was little comfort to be found. Popeyes can of spinach, which had sunk more Japanese ships than the Seventh Fleet, was empty when it came to the Russians. Superman had defeated both Germans and Japoteurs alike but where was he now? Bugs and Daffy, twin nemeses of the Nazis, left Mr. Krushchev unmolested. The toons were shortly replaced that day by Conelrad alerts this is a test, this is only a test and the shadows of the missiles grew deeper. Bugs, Daffy, Superman, Popeye, my teachers and classmates, the whole world and I were going to go down together in a blistering nuclear fireball.
To my great relief, it never happened. Today, little remains of the geopolitical scene that existed in October of 1962, but one thing did remain constant: American animation never went to war again. This is somewhat of a puzzle, since animated characters had been fighting like furies since WWI. Animation was just a few years old when Mutt and Jeff starred in such films as Hunting the U-boats, At the Front and The Kaisers New Dentist. Colonel Heeza Liar was no less active against the Hun, and Winsor McCay made one of the most stunning propaganda films of all time, The Sinking of the Lusitania. This indictment of perfidy under German arms demonstrated the power of animation to inflame a nations fighting spirit.
The wartime cartoons of WWII are well known to all readers of this column, although they are typically examined for their racist content rather than as vehicles for propaganda or boosts to home front morale. Nearly every Hollywood studio put toons in uniform and some of the resulting shorts were so memorable that they transcended their times. Films such as Der Fuherers Face and Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips were miniature depictions of a nations contemptuous attitude toward its deadliest foes. Perhaps the greatest wartime short of all was Bob Clampetts Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs, in which Americas relentless energy and implacable will to victory were translated through the medium of black jazz and street culture. Beneath the now repellent stereotypes, Coal Black was the animated equivalent of a B29 fueled by pure adrenaline and laden with the bombs of libertys righteousness. Nothing like Coal Black has ever been produced again. Why is that?
One reason is certainly the events that ended The Good War. The old modes of armed international conflict were forever buried in the radioactive rubble of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. From then on, the possibility that the next war would be the last moved out of the realm of science fiction and into our waking nightmares. Popeye might be able to stop a tank, or Daffy Duck a Nazi goat, but nothing could survive a rain of missiles, any one of which could incinerate hundreds of thousands of people in one swift nuclear flash. The toons were as helpless as we were; just as unprepared to fight such a war, and certainly just as unable to envision the world that would be left following such a conflict. Were anyone still alive to animate Bugs Bunny in the face of such a holocaust, they could only depict that trickster in the midst of a blasted landscape, staring about in shock while radiation seared raw, gaping holes in his pelt. It is difficult to raise up a fighting spirit when a war is in no way winnable, or for that matter, survivable.
Then of course, there was the changing nature of how wars were fought. The Cold War was a shadowy affair, a dark, swirling dance across the face of the globe between two contentious ideologies who dared not pull the nuclear trigger on each other. America and the Soviet Union snarled and swiped at each other in Berlin and Havana, but primarily fought their struggles through third world proxies in obscure locations. Wars were never formally declared, nor could they be carried to the logical conclusion of battering an enemy to the point of surrender. To make the game more confusing, the major combatants indiscriminately tossed arms and treasure to any unsavory dictator or strongman who batted his eyes seductively enough. Our friends were often as despicable as our foes, with nary a Winston Churchill amongst them. Thus was the state of the world at the time of the Korean War.
Americas first armed conflict following WWII was never formally declared, nor was it settled by a signed treaty; it was an exercise in containment policy ostensibly aimed at halting Communist expansion, and it could have ended much worse for American forces than it actually did. This was a hard war to sell to the public, in a place far less identifiable to most Americans than Germany, Italy or Japan. This new style of war was incomprehensible: America was never threatened directly, nor was there any danger of Kim Il Sung dictating peace terms to the White House. Even should North Korea be defeated, nothing would be settled save bragging rights; the might and main of both Communist Russia and China would remain untouched, guaranteeing that a new fire would simply flare up elsewhere. The United States could try to head off such trouble in advance by arranging for a leftist leader to be deposed in favor of a more tractable one. In such a dreary, duplicitous struggle neither Bugs, Daffy, Popeye nor Donald had any place, since a national sense of purpose, righteousness and élan had no place either. Today the Korean conflict is euphemistically called the forgotten war, and no one forgot it more thoroughly than Hollywoods animation studios.
The Vietnam War was also ignored by our ink-and-paint warriors for the same reasons described above, but that is far from the whole story. Early returns from Vietnam suggested that the war was not winnable without massive American commitment. This commitment was made regardless of the wishes of the American people, who were fed carefully concocted lies about the progress of a war that escalated into a military nightmare. Combat in Vietnam was confused and chaotic, with no clear distinction between enemy and ally. The leader of our South Vietnamese client was Ngo Dinh Diem, a figure so corrupt that our government authorized a fatal coup against him. The discovery of American atrocities, including the revelation of the massacre at My Lai, proved our own soldiers to be capable of acts previously ascribed only to our most barbaric enemies. As the war finally spiraled into a hallucinatory orgy of waste and destruction with no evident result, much of the nation rose against it, tearing America apart along racial and generational lines.
Our beloved cartoons could not fight in such a war, despite the many examples of heroism and valor by our forces in Vietnam. The same cartoon character that took up arms would probably have no idea whom he was fighting or even why. He might be depicted burning down innocent villages in a Zippo raid, shooting up heroin in a fetid jungle hooch, or fragging his own commanding officer. Audiences back home would likely boo his every appearance on the screen, which would be problematic enough in the first place; by the Vietnam era it had become distasteful to depict racial stereotypes of any sort, and vicious caricatures of Asians may have been more likely to draw sympathy for the enemy instead. As John Wayne was to discover, no motion picture star (animated or otherwise) could have played cheerleader for a war that had grown so violently unpopular.
Only two cartoons are generally associated with the Vietnam War, and both serve as examples of the bitter cynicism that characterized the times. Old Glory was a 1939 Warner Bros. cartoon directed by Chuck Jones in which the spirit of Uncle Sam instructs Porky Pig as to the importance of the Pledge of Allegiance. The film was often shown before rock concerts in West Coast venues such as the Fillmore during the late Sixties; audiences would hoot derisively at the films ending, delighted at the sight of a pig saluting the American flag. The other film was an underground short called Mickey Mouse in Vietnam. Some rumors (probably apocryphal) attribute this film to several antiwar Disney animators who allegedly made it in secret. Mickey Mouse, meant to symbolize innocent youth, is drafted, put through rigorous boot camp, and sent to Vietnam. He is shot dead almost immediately upon arrival.
Wartime animation died in Vietnam along with Mickey. After the duplicity and horror of Vietnam, Americans had lost their taste for war and no longer seemed to accept many justifications for it. They could hardly be blamed. In a country that found military propaganda tiresome and hard to swallow after Johnson and Nixon, not everyone believed that the Persian Gulf war was a noble foray to liberate the oppressed. Our opponent, the detestable Saddam Hussein, was actually on our side at one point in the past. To the puzzlement of all but the cynics, he remained fully in power after defeat. Again, political correctness forbade the enemy from being savagely stereotyped. With all this considered, what sort of propaganda could Bugs Bunny (or, by then, the Tiny Toons) successfully disseminate? The only shot Hussein took from animation was fired by Matt Stone and Trey Parker in South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncu t, and that came eight years after the war had ended.
Even following September 11, 2001, the response was less than enthusiastic from our animated heroes despite the fact that no external enemy had inflicted so many civilian casualties since the British torched Washington, D.C. No Powerpuff Girl, Justice League member, or inhabitant of Bikini Bottom ever throttled Osama Bin Laden and his minions for their perfidious deeds, and none are ever likely to. Depicting our extremist enemies in order to have Kim Possible cut them down would be offensive to...but why go on? We responded to the attack with far more sadness and solemnity than rage; our vengeance limited to blasting caves on the other side of the world and attempting to run down scattered Al Qaeda members like so many cockroaches. Americans mourned, put flags in their windows and entered one wearisome global war requiring eternal vigilance. As we prepare to thrash the hummus out of Iraq, we do so knowing that most of the world does not agree, and we ask our leaders for proof that this is a sound decision. This is not the mood in which a nation prepares for war, so why expect patriotic exhortations from our cartoons? The time when American animation went to war is over; if only the same could be said for war itself.
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.